In an age when a form of abuse can be made to stick as a legal charge, “Urban Naxalism” threatens to consume one more victim under UAPA: Anand Teltumbde, the Dalit public intellectual among many other things.
A caring society will give protection to someone like Teltumbde; it instead threatens him with long years of incarceration under the dreaded legislation in the absurd Bhima Koregaon case.
It was 2005 in Mumbai on the occasion of a public lecture by the distinguished historian Romila Thapar, when an unassuming man in his 40s gave me a business card that said “Anand Teltumbde, Managing Director, Petronet”. At the time I was still new to Mumbai’s intellectual scene having become editor of the Economic and Political Weekly only the year before. I did not know of Anand Teltumbde. So, I was puzzled that the head of a public sector undertaking was attending a lecture on historical method.
I was to soon learn that Teltumbde was much more than a head of a PSU. This graduate of IIM Ahmedabad wrote prolifically, both newspaper/magazine articles and books on a range of public issues, always offering insights with unconventional views. He had interests in education too, leaving his management job to teach first at IIT Kharagpur and then at the Goa Institute of Management.
For more than a decade, I had the privilege to first read his writings and then to publish his work in EPW. In 2010, the journal invited Teltumbde to write a monthly column on current affairs. If I am not mistaken this was the first time that a Dalit writer had his own column in the English language media. “Margin Speak” was an outstanding success. The column had a wider gamut than Dalit issues. There was no issue in politics and society that escaped Teltumbde’s comment. Unlike most columnists whose views you can predict after a while, this was one who frequently gave you unusual perspectives. Indeed, Teltumbde, who is married into B R Ambedkar’s family, often expressed views that did not endear him to Dalit activists. Yet, Teltumbde’s column was the most widely read of EPW’s columns and was often reproduced elsewhere.
Teltumbde’s pen is sharp but his demeanour is most unobtrusive. I was once in the early 2010s a fellow member of a citizens’ committee hearing a case on displacement of people by a major project of Mangalore Refineries and Petrochemicals Limited (MRPL). During the two-day visit he was quick to highlight the abuse of law and demonstrate empathy, but never one to thrust himself into the limelight. In a different setting, when I participated along with him at a conference in the Central University of Sikkim in 2013, there was the thoughtful and widely-read Teltumbde presenting an academic paper.
It is absurd to think that the same Teltumbde would use the Bhima Koregaon forum to build a conspiracy to inflict violence. For, his views on the Bhima Koregaon battle of 1818 seek to downplay the importance of the 19th century battle. In an article written in The Wire.in in early 2018, Teltumbde said that it was important for Ambedkar, during his time, to project the battle as one of the Mahars under the British fighting their Brahminical oppressors. But it was a “pure myth”, for it was historically inaccurate to cast it as an oppressed versus oppressor battle. The myth had outlived its political purpose. Holding on to it in the 21st century had pushed Dalits, argued Teltumbde, into “an identitarian marshland”.
It is unbelievable that someone who holds such strong and contrarian views would use the Bhima Koregaon anniversary for some conspiracy against the State.
There is now a familiar pattern in the action of the law enforcement agencies. From making “sedition” charges against students of Jawaharlal Nehru University to booking alleged cow smugglers under the National Security Act to framing charges against intellectuals and activists under UAPA, they all seem to be accusations made on political motivation, to the benefit of the ruling dispensation. Those charged will all be eventually acquitted, but “eventually” after many years of lost lives. Should a society use its citizens as cannon fodder in cases that are built on trumped up charges?
Reddy is editor of The India Forum, an online magazine to be launched in February